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Drink the Wines you Care About

When I first started getting into wine I looked for guidance; don’t we all? Someone to lead us by the hand, tell us what we should be drinking. I think it is traditional at this point to say I turned to a big name critic such as Parker, but in fact in those very early days it was more likely UK columnists or annual UK guides that I would use. It wasn’t long before I realised my little wine collection was very narrow in style though (I had lots of mid-priced Australian Cabernet and Shiraz, and not much else) although looking back that wasn’t the main problem. The biggest problem was that I had a collection of wine that was driven entirely by somebody else’s palate. Each individual wine was reliable, but overall it was a dull collection. It lacked variety. It lacked adventure.

These days, I don’t follow anyone else’s palate but my own. “That’s easy for you”, you might say, “you travel and taste a lot, but the rest of us don’t have that advantage”. OK, that’s a fair point. I’ve visited the Loire Valley three times this year, and Bordeaux once (and I expect to be back to both before the year is out), so I do taste a lot of young wines and can therefore act as my own guide for my buying decisions.

I have a counter-argument though; the thing is, I don’t just buy wines which I have tasted and dutifully scribbled down notes and scores for. Some wines from the Loire and Bordeaux I buy blind, simply because I care about these two regions. I care particularly about the Loire Valley, its wines and its vignerons – you probably have to, in order to want to write comprehensively and consistently about it, as it is a huge and sprawling region. I also care about Bordeaux, although I really think I should be caring more about the litle appellations and domaines these days, and less about the big boys and girls of the cru classé châteaux. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Damien Laureau

As a consequence of this deep interest in these two regions I often buy wines blind, with absolutely no knowledge of the domaine, having never tasted the wines in question. For example, sticking with the Loire Valley, in June I drove past a domaine in Savennieres I was unfamiliar with. I was on a busy (self-imposed!) schedule and so didn’t stop, but I have since bought a bottle to taste. I have no idea what to expect when I pull the cork. And in Sancerre, which I also visited in June, I was reminded of a domaine I briefly visited in 2013 but never wrote up (it was a flying, rather informal visit). Seeing these wines in the UK recently, I also bought some of those to see what they’re like, again completely blind.

Now these wines might not be the best wines in the respective appellations, but to me that’s not important. Maybe on pulling the corks I will find they are actually quite bad, but honestly that’s not important either. I could, I suppose, restrict myself to drinking only the best; I could pore over my notes and exclusively buy only Damien Laureau (pictured above) and Claude Papin in Savennières, from François Cotat and Gérard Boulay in Sancerre. And then I could pore over someone else’s notes and buy only the best from Piedmont, or from California, or from Australia. But the problem with this latter approach, as I realised many years ago, is that you end up drinking to the preferences of someone else’s palate.

Rigorously following notes and scores (mine or anyone else’s!) removes a sense of adventure from wine drinking. Among all the safe bets and sure things, if there is a region you care about, it is good to sometimes open a bottle with absolutely no idea what the wine will be like. Good or bad, every bottle counts, because if you care about the region in question, the bottle will enhance your understanding of it. It will become part of your wine journey. And while I still buy wines based on my own tastings, in the Loire and in Bordeaux, ultimately I have realised exploring my favourite wine regions this way – with a mix of the known and the unknown – thereby developing a deeper and broader understanding of Savennières, Sancerre and so on, is much more fun than slavishly following a palate or guide in the hope of always having a minimum-90-point experience.

A New Vinho Verde

I’m a sucker for a little bit of spritz. Wines with a tingle on the tongue might not be the most sophisticated of libations, but they sure can be refreshing and easy to drink. The classic example of the style is Vinho Verde, a wine that was traditionally bottled young (the ‘green’ verde refers not to the colour – the wines can be red, white or rosé – but to their youth) with a little carbon dioxide spritz from the fermentation. Today, however, true ‘just-fermented’ spritz is perhaps more likely to be encountered at RAW or the Real Wine Fair; in modern, whistle-clean Vinho Verde today it is more likely to be the result of a little carbonation. That, I think, removes a little of the magic; I’m not such a sucker for that kind of spritz. Stylistically, it seems to me to be something of a strait-jacket; I would think it difficult for a producer to say “I’m making serious/rich/flavoursome/ageworthy wines”, styles which might allow them to raise prices a little, when still pumping carbon dioxide into the wines.

Some Vino Verde producers also seem to have recognised this and today there is a broad array of more serious single-variety wines available. Of the Vinho Verde grapes Alvarinho seems to be a popular choice for this treatment, the locals perhaps spurred on by the success of Albariño (the same grape variety) in Rias Baixas in northern Spain. It’s not admittedly a new phenomenon – the first varietal Alvarinho wiens appeared in the 1980s, but moving away from spritz to substance is perhaps more recent. These new wines seem to have more substance and depth of flavour, and they seem to want to impress with form rather than froth. These are interesting wines and I have taken advantage of my time in Portugal to taste a few. As my notes show, though, picking out which wines follow the new mantra, and which retain the older spritzy style, is difficult.


Dona Paterna Vinho Verde Alvarinho 2013: From vines cultivated on terraced vineyards in the proximity of the region’s ancient monastery and church. This is the first wine I tasted which seemed very different to the ‘traditional’ view of spritzy Vinho Verde. An extra year in bottle may also have helped of course. A touch of gold to the hue. A nose rich in confident fruits, pears and apricots. The palate has substance and real presence in the mouth, and the expressive fruits are backed up by succulent acidity, wonderful for Portugal’s warm climate. Good depth to this one. A real success. Alcohol 13%. 16/20 (July 2015)

Reguengo de Melgaço Vinho Verde Alvarinho 2014: The Reguengo de Melgaço is an ancient manor house built on the orders of Queen Dona Leonor in the 16th century. In the 1990s it was acquired by the Cardadeiro family, and 7.5 hectares of Alvarhinho were planted (and the manor house converted into a hotel). This has a much paler hue than the Dona Paterna. The fruit character on the nose leans towards a greener style, greengage and apple. The palate has a lovely freshness and lift, with bright acidity, and in part this is also down to a little spritz here. Despite the use of a single variety and very modern packaging this still nods towards the traditional Vinho Verde style. A good refresher though. Alcohol 12.5%. 15/20 (July 2015)

Quinta da Lixa Vinho Verde Alvarinho 2014: This seems to be a very large operation producing a very broad range of wines. This wine has a pale hue. The nose seems dominated by ripe banana, which to me always suggests the use of cultured aromatic yeasts. With time the aroma seems to fade, or perhaps I simply become accustomed to it, in the same way one doesn’t notice the stench of chlorine at the public swimming baths after a while. The palate seems rather innocuous, although banana still rules here. It feels very commercial in character. Alcohol 12.5%. 13.5/20 (July 2015)

Via Latina Vinho Verde Alvarinho 2014: The Via Latina label belongs to Vercoope, a Vinho Verde co-operative. High hopes here were not realised sadly; the nose gives a sense of freshness but it feels somewhat anodyne. The palate has the same character, showing a slightly steely backbone but no real character or depth of fruit. It has the spritz of traditional vinho verde, as well as a plumpness of texture that suggests a gram or two of residual sugar. Nice acidity gives it freshness, and that spritz brings a somewhat salty edge, but ultimately this is one of the less appealing wines tasted here. Alcohol 12.5%. 14/20 (July 2015)

Palácio da Brejoeira Vinho Verde Alvarinho 2013: The Palácio da Brejoeira is an imposing neoclassical manor house that dates to the early 19th century, while the vineyard is a more recent (1970s) addition. Bottle number 36577. A pale-gold hue in the glass. The nose is full of orchard fruit notes, with a bitter frame, peach skin and pears, with a good bite to it. The palate shows moderate depth, nicely lifted by fresh, confident acidity which carries along the fruit flavours very nicely. The fruit here has an appealing bitterness, recalling orange pith and almond husk. Straight, quite long, nicely composed, clean into the finish. Very good, an enticing wine. Alcohol 13.5%. 16.5/20 (July 2015)

Soalheiro Vinho Verde Alvarinho 2014: The original varietal Alvarinho – the vines were planted in 1974, and the first Alvarinho released in 1982. A pale golden hue. The nose is full of soft orchard fruits, ripe pears and dessert apples, with a fresh citrus twist. Everything seems in place on the palate, which has a nice depth of fruit matching the nose, fresh acidity, and a bright sense of harmony and confidence which few of the other wines tasted here seem capable of matching. Impressive, a very polished style, very complete. Alcohol 12.5%. 16.5/20 (July 2015)

A Summer Break: Sunshine & Saumur

Now summer has arrived (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) I will be taking my customary break from Winedoctor updates for a few weeks. I am currently packing two bags in preparation; bag one will be coming with me for two weeks of sunshine and poolside relaxation in Portugal. Then, immediately after my return to the UK, bag two will be accompanying me as I return to Saumur again for a week. This is my second time in Saumur this year as I was there just a few weeks ago (tasting in the cellars at Clos Rougeard, pictured below, among other places).

Clos Rougeard

As is usual this break means there will be no behind-paywall updates now until July 27th. It has been a hectic six months so far, with more updates, reports, profiles and blog posts than ever, and I am looking forward to the break. I am also (weirdly – this is an obsession though) looking forward to getting back into it when I return, especially publishing a huge pile of Saumur tasting reports I have lined up, for Clos Rougeard, Domaine Guiberteau, Château de Targé and Château du Hureau among others, as well as some Vouvray and Montlouis reports (getting to grips with some lovely 2014s) and a string of new Sancerre profiles for Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre Morin, Clos la Néore, Vincent Gaudry, Vincent Grall and others. I will also revisit 2013 Bordeaux, 2011 Bordeaux, and I have other trips to the Loire (again!) and Bordeaux planned.

Happy summer (or winter) holidays, whatever you have planned, and thanks for supporting Winedoctor. Subscriber numbers are at their highest ever, ensuring Winedoctor (a) keeps going and (b) remains as indepependent and transparent as possible. I have some significant news on the issue of independence coming later this year – so watch this space!

Best wishes – Chris

The Rise of the Wine Lifestyle Blogger

Look back over the last thirty years of wine writing and I would say that, in the early years at least, the field was led by a small number of big-name writers. I recall reading – although I honestly can’t remember where, or who the author was – of how some writers enjoyed the benefits of their trade. There was a story of one who would leave the boot (trunk if you’re North American) of his hire car unlocked during visits to châteaux so that a case of wine could be deposited there while he tasted (or lunched, maybe). Who knows how common such behaviour was? It was allegations (whether true or not – I would like to think the latter) such as these, reflecting overly-cosy relationships between the wine press and the châteaux, and a seeming inability of these critics to be critical of the wines they tasted (no surprises there), that set the scene for Robert Parker’s rise to fame. He aspired to be the ‘Ralph Nader’ of wine. If like me you’re unsure of Ralph Nader’s raison d’être, I will save you the bother of the research; he is an American political activist who came to prominence for taking the US motor industry to task over safety. In other words, he was untouchable, unassailable, unstained by dodgy relationships with the industry. It is now, I feel, the only valid model for a modern-day wine critic to work to; independence is key to the validity of individual ‘expert’ opinion. Although some have said that the days for independent critics are numbered, still-rising body of subscribers to this site tells me otherwise. If a consumer is content with the independence of a critic, and values the information provided, then it seems to me following that critic remains today a valid stream of information on wine.

These days, however, we are sometimes told that it is a new information stream that guides consumers, as social media, or crowd-sourced opinion such as can be found in the notes on Eric LeVine’s CellarTracker software, or within online forums, takes the place of big-name critics. This whole concept to me seems very valid. After all, if you have fifty notes on a wine from fifty consumers, even with some noise in there from those less interested or less able to communicate their thoughts on the wine, or perhaps from bottles that were faulty but weren’t recognised to be so, you should still end up with enough data to give the overall opinion and score validity. The same goes for online forums, where over time a regular contributor can gain recognition for the strength of their palate, so that users of the forum will often ask there for advice on what to buy rather than yielding to the opinions of, as some would describe them (us?), ‘self-important’ critics. Another aspect of crowd-sourced opinion that gives it value is that by and large the consumers that generate it are independent. They don’t depend on press trips, freebies and visits to the châteaux to generate their tasting notes, and indeed most – probably all – have shelled out hard-earned cash for the bottles on which they report. To me it means, despite the presence of some noise, these opinions really count. They are self-funded, honest and inherently independent. This seems to me to be another valid model for gaining valuable wine advice, and it is an advantage of living in the internet age.

The social media of the 21st century has spawned a third information stream though, and that is the ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger. At this point I have to confess that although I like this term very much, it isn’t an original one – another wine writer used it to describe the phenomenon in a conversation we shared earlier this year. The ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger behaves like the independent critic, visiting wine regions to taste. But rather than focus on independence as a strength, and remaining distant from the châteaux, he goes to the other extreme, as the focus is the trip itself, the experience, and the always-high quality of the wines involved. Bordeaux is a popular destination – the dinners during primeurs and VinExpo are not to be missed. A typical day – reported live on Facebook and Twitter – will be a visit to one château, but then lunch (a boozy one too) at another (pictures of each dish, full glasses and empty bottles are mandatory), then perhaps another visit with twenty vintages tasted, but then cocktails at château number four, and finishing up with a long dinner (black tie, preferably) lubricated with ancient vintages back to the early decades of the 20th century at château number five (and don’t forget the firework display at the end). It makes for fun reading, after all, who wouldn’t enjoy such a day? I have nothing against a blogger who follows this model. They are only taking advantage of what is offered to them, and readers clearly lap it up. What I wonder, though, is how the posts are ultimately interpreted. Every time I see a ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger post, their reports always prompt me to ask myself two questions.

First, how credible is the ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger, who may well go on to post notes and scores on the wines, as a critic? Which of the above three models is more (or less) useful to the consumer looking for guidance to buy? Is it the report from the old-school critic who strives for independence from the châteaux, whose credibility rests on being able to offer critical comments as well as praise? Or is it the collection of notes, the crowd-sourced opinion from social media, from folk who pay for their bottles and who aren’t afraid to say what they really think about a wine they shelled out for? Or is it the lifestyle blogger who, while writing glorious reports, and posting prolifically on social media, must bear in mind with the comments they make that next year’s dinner invitation hangs in the balance?

And second, can the wine trade tell the difference between the critic and the ‘wine lifestyle’ blogger? Or, when it comes to choosing where they source their opinion, is it just a question of highest score wins?

Exploring Sherry #11: Lustau Amontillado Botaina

In 2008 Lustau bought up a number of bodegas, soleras and brands from the old firm of Pedro Domecq, including the fino brand La Ina, and the associated Botaina. The two wines are related, Botaina being an amontillado created from La Ina after the death of the protective flor. The solera is named for Antonio Botaina, the proprietor of the vineyard from which the wines entering the solera were produced. Having been started in 1918, the average age of the wine coming out of the solera is currently somewhere between twelve and fifteen years of age.


Although I’m not familiar with the old Pedro Domecq wines I get the feeling there was room for improvement, certainly Lustau seems to be credited with achieving this, to some extent anyway. In terms of price, these seem like very competitive entry-level wines that do the job, even if they aren’t that exciting.

The Lustau Amontillado Botaina has a golden toasty-brown hue in the glass. To be straight with you it takes a little while to get going; certainly on the first evening it felt really quite flat and untalkative, but throughout the rest of the week it showed better, revealing scents of toasted nuts, grilled citrus fruits, a little dry and dusty earth with a touch of bake to it, and some notes of coffee bean and liquorice. It isn’t exactly exuberantly bursting from the glass, but there is some complexity here within the wine’s subtle stance. The palate is very cool and confident at the start, textured through the middle, as well as being fresh and energetic, deliciously dry, with nuances of baked orange slices, cardamom and pepper spice, and a long tingling finish. From initial disappointment this is one wine that really grew on me. What’s more it offers some decent value. 16/20 (June 2015)

There is More to Sancerre than Sancerre

I spent a day last week in Sancerre, visiting domaines in Chavignol and Bué (as well as a flying visit across the Loire to Pouilly-Fumé). It got me thinking about what Sancerre is, and why some people reject it and some adore it. And I also got to thinking about how Sancerre is farmed and how the wines – or rather the appellation as a whole – is marketed, particularly in contrast with other regions, especially Burgundy which is not that far away (Sancerre is closer to Chablis than it is to Vouvray – apologies if I am repeating myself with this little nugget).

I can’t address all my thoughts here but I can the first one. There is certainly more than one ‘type’ of Sancerre (and no, I don’t mean red versus white, or oaked versus unoaked!), just as there is more than one type of Chablis. Simply because, I think, there is more than one type of terroir here. This was most apparent tasting with Jean-Paul Labaille at Domaine Thomas-Labaille. He opened with his 2014 L’Authentique tasted from cuve, an entry-level wine which is pretty, with clean fruit in the floral vein, and fresh acidity. It was an attractive sample, and a wine which once bottled I could certainly drink, but it lacked any hint of minerality, and for that reason it lacked a little interest too. Jean-Paul knows this, and he described it as a “Vin de Sancerre”, implying a ‘generic’ style.


Then it was onto Jean-Paul’s other cuvées, from a number of different parcels in Chavignol, and suddenly there it was, all the powdery, rocky, flinty minerality I look for in this appellation. These you might call varietal rather than terroir wines, but Jean-Paul thinks of each of his as a “Vin de Chavignol”. It was, for me, and for him I think, the minerality that set these wines apart. I found the same minerality later in the day, tasting in Chavignol again, and also in Bué (Chavignol doesn’t have a monopoly on minerality). Within the appellation this distinction between some sites or indeed villages and more ‘generic’ Sancerre seems well recognised, although not always well-received. I remember not that long ago receiving a somewhat cross message from one vigneron, based right in the heart of Sancerre, when I featured a wine I described as being “from Chavignol” on Winedoctor. “Chavignol is not an appellation” was the general tone of the reply. I guess the fact that Chavignol was written large on the label, much more prominently than Sancerre, didn’t help.

Sancerre is a vineyard of slopes, classically with wheat planted on the windswept plateau and in the too-fertile valleys (as pictured above, the little road in bottom-left being the route out from Sancerre to Chavignol). Some of these slopes are better than others. Some have famous names – Les Monts Damnés, for example – or as an alternative we can speak of desirable geology – Kimmeridgian limestone or marl seems to be the one to go for. It seems strange to me that such names and phrases are largely absent from the Sancerre lexicon. Most of us probably know the top half-dozen famous vineyards, but after that it becomes hard work. Contrast this against Burgundy, where every slope is divided up with meticulous attention to detail. I wonder if in this Sancerre is a victim of its own success – that word on the label is enough to secure sales, so why bother with nuances such as slope, vineyard, terroir or village of origin?

There are some domaines, though, where the individual vineyards are being seen as increasingly important, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future these names will be seen as more significant than the word Sancerre itself. But I will come back to that another day I think. For the moment I will simply conclude that there is more to Sancerre than at first meets the eye. There is more to Sancerre than, well, just Sancerre.

I’m Not On a Press Trip to Saumur

Ahhh, the romance of wine writing. As I sit here, a mere stone’s throw from Saumur, the view from my window a vibrant pink-and-blue melange of a sunset, bird song in the distance, slowly giving way to the chirrupping of nocturnal insects, all that is missing to complete the picture is a glass of the good stuff itself. A little Saumur-Champigny, or Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame perhaps, would do the trick.

Unfortunately the above words constitute something of a fabrication. It’s all true, it’s just not the whole truth; it’s what I have left out that tells the real story. I’m in a budget hotel, and in France these seem to be either (a) on the side of an autoroute or (b) in the middle of a zone industrielle, in my case the latter. The view from my window comprises a Carrefour filling station, three grey-box-warehouse outlets selling incomprehensible services, a white van that seems to be kerb crawling and a car park. There is a sunset though.

I’m here to make a few flying visits, to catch up with a few vignerons I know, to visit others for the first time. In Saumur I will visit tomorrow (Thursday) Domaine Guiberteau, Clos Rougeard and Château du Hureau. On Friday I’m off to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé to see Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau (pictured below the last time we met, in 2013), Pierre Morin, Domaine Thomas-Labaille and Anne Vatan. Yes, Anne Vatan, as in the daughter of Edmond Vatan. She is not always easy to get hold of, so I’m really looking forward to that one.

Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau, October 2013

As you might imagine from the quality and stature of the growers on my list this is no carelessly thrown together schedule, so my thanks to Matt Wilkin of H2Vin and also Benoit Roumet, directeur of the BIVC who both helped. Matt opened some very big doors, and Benoit was ruthlessly efficient in his arrangements (my first email to Benoit was at 7pm on a Sunday evening – I had a reply eight minutes later….impressive, very impressive).

You can deduce from the above that this obviously isn’t a press trip either. InterLoire, the generic body covering PR for the Loire Valley (except for those appellations who have left, e.g. Montlouis, Bourgueil) do fly out a number of journalists to the Loire Valley every June, but those trips have been and gone. These trips naturally tend to focus on vignerons who are (a) good communicators, which may go hand-in-hand with them being (b) English speakers (not necessarily though), a good ‘press trip’ vigneron should also be (c) amenable and (d) accessible. It helps, no doubt, if they put on a good spread too. Two days in the company of such individuals no doubt makes for a fun trip and a few lovely blog posts (maybe even a newspaper column), but my problem with such short visits to see such a highly selected group of vignerons is that it surely presents a rather narrow view of a wine region. All you have seen is one side of wine scene that probably has many diffeent facets.

I guess press trips are fine if you just want an easily accessible snippet on Savennières or some nice pictures for a forthcoming column or feature, but if you want to get under the skin of the Loire Valley (and no doubt any other region) you have to dig a bit deeper. I think this means spending time tracking down some less easily accessible individuals, perhaps some of the less talkative vignerons, those growers who don’t readily engage. Because sometimes these individuals can make the best wines of all, the appellation-defining wines that we all obsess over from time to time. To truly understand one region, to develop a real depth of knowledge and to communicate using the confidence and experience that brings, you have to go beyond the press trips.

The gendarmes are now questioning the driver of the white van. I would continue to watch, but it is time for some kip prior to my first appointment at 8:30am tomorrow.

Exploring Sherry #10: Tio Pepe Fino En Rama

I first tasted Tio Pepe’s En Rama a couple of years ago. I was quite smitten with it. The style is quite distinctive, rather like your everyday fino on a very basic level, but with everything turned up a notch. More flavour, more texture, more aroma, more character. I’m sure most people reading already know this, but whereas most finos are prepared for market with filtration and clarification, giving rather pale but stable wines, the En Rama wines are treated with a much lighter touch. The term en rama translates literally as on the branch (or on the vine might be more appropriate) the idea being that these wines are much closer to the ‘real thing’, with much less of the character stripped out.

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe En Rama

The Tio Pepe En Rama from Gonzalez Byass is the example that has gained most traction, but there are also En Rama wines from Lustau, Barbadillo and maybe a dozen other bodegas. This is the sixth release for the Tio Pepe En Rama, and of those I have tasted this seems to me to be one of the most striking, pungently aromatic releases so far. In the glass in has a very pure and convincing lemon yellow hue. And it has a very forward and open nose, very confident, with plenty of depth, showing fruit character reminiscent of preserved lemon and dried citrus peel, along with a pungent flor streak that calls to mind almonds, bread crust and hay, as well as a little smoky, funky depth in the background. The palate is full, with more smoky-nutty flor notes, but also a broad base of preserved fruit substance giving the wine more body than most finos. Very fresh, with not an angular edge to it, and a cool but substantial finish, long and full of lightly bitter notes. A very impressive release. 17/20 (June 2015)

Sancerre: Classic versus Cult

I have just put the finishing touches to my schedule for a short trip to Saumur-Champigny, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé that I will be undertaking next week. It’s going to be a flying visit to see some of the top names in each of these three appellations. I do spend a lot of time seeking out ‘value’ in the Loire (not difficult – there’s a lot of it about) but on this trip I’m shooting for the other end of the spectrum. Basically, name your ‘number one’ domaine in any of these appellations and it’s likely I have an appointment there. As you might imagine I am looking forward to it immensely.

Looking at my three appointments in Sancerre I was struck by a schism in the style of wine in this appellation. When I first started drinking Sancerre it was the ‘classically’ styled wines of Domaine Vacheron that drew me in. They are one of many that produce wines in a very pure style (especially with the current range of single-vineyard cuvées), focusing on minerality first, with flavours of delicately ripe Sauvignon Blanc which to me means citrus fruits, white peach, perhaps pear. In other words nothing grassy or green (it is not hard to find greener entry-level wines from Sancerre – I come across too many when judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards), and nothing too ripe or overtly varietal either, so no passion fruit or gooseberry.

These wines, importantly, seem to me to speaking of the place from which they come with some conviction, not of the variety, not of the winemaking. There are any number of domaines that you could think of working to produce the same rather ‘classic’ style; François Crochet, Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy, Henri Bourgeois, Domaine Thomas-Labaille, Pierre & Gérard Morin, Gérard Boulay, Alphonse Mellot, Vincent Gaudry and others. I am sure most readers have their personal favourites, almost certainly some not on this list. I would regard all these domaines as producing wines with ‘typicity’. Wines that are pure, minerally, with very precise fruit character. You might say these are the classic wines of Sancerre.

Sancerre: Classic versus Cult

But then when you scour internet forums to see which domaines in Sancerre generate the most chatter, very few of these domaines make an appearance. Gérard Boulay pops up now and again, but rarely any of the others. Instead all the obsession seems directed towards other domaines. François Cotat, for example, who makes exemplary wines from the classic Chavignol terroirs but sometimes they stray from the classic style sketched out above, with riper fruit flavours of pineapple and mango, or sometimes they have very high alcohol levels, or perhaps even a touch of residual sugar. There is nothing typical here I think. Then there is his cousin Pascal Cotat, who seems better known for his Vin de France rosé than his Chavignol cuvées, again little here that is typical. Then there is Clos la Néore, where Edmond and now Anne Vatan have a reputation for turning out distinctive wines, harvested late, rich in character and flavours that go far beyond the ‘classic’ model described above, and which have a reputation for ageing well. And I suppose there is also Sébastien Riffault, where the oxidative style dominates. Different again. How should we refer to these wines? They are, I suppose, the cult wines of Sancerre. Idiosyncratic, of limited availability, and loved by those who know them.

Which of these wines appeal most will depend on your personal preferences, what you understand of the appellation, and exactly what you want out of the wine. Personally I can see something of interest in the wines of all these domaines – I think every one has made a wine which, at one time another, has enchanted me, even if for different reasons. But to me it begs the question – who here is really ‘classic’ and who is the idiosyncratic ‘cult’? Indeed, if you asked Anne Vatan or the Cotat cousins about their winemaking philosophies they would probably say they are allowing the vineyard to speak, through the ripeness of the fruit, and they are only doing things the way their fathers or the vignerons of old did them. In that case, is my concept of classicism completely wrong? Are these the classics of Sancerre rather than the Vacherons, Mellots, Crochets and Reverdys?

Maybe I will make my mind up during my trip to Sancerre next week…..

Quarts de Chaume: The Hard Work Begins

“Cent cabarets offrent leur vin
Rochefort, Huillé, Quart de Chaume,
Martigné, tous les Saints qu’on chôme
Saint-Aubin, Saint-Lambert, Saint-Cyr
– Nectar, ambroisie, Élixir!”

A.J. Verrier (1841 – 1920)

I don’t know much about Verrier, other than he had a penchant for language and dialect. He obviously knew a thing or two about wine though, as he makes clear in his ode to the wines of Anjou, a few opening lines from which are reproduced above. He doesn’t take long to get around to Quarts de Chaume you note (even if he does spell it differently), followed by several other notable Layon villages.

The wines of Quarts de Chaume, and to a lesser extent Chaume, have enjoyed an exalted reputation for many decades, indeed for centuries. And if you take a look at a map of the Quarts de Chaume the first thing it calls to mind are maps of the great wine villages of the Côte d’Or with which, I suspect, more wine drinkers will be familiar. There, famous grands crus lie nestled in among less well known vineyards, some of which will be premier cru, some of which are ‘mere’ village lieux-dits. The lines are drawn on a plot-by-plot basis, making a patchwork of potential quality within each village.

Note that I write ‘potential’ quality. Sometimes the weather gods conspire against the vignerons, and deal them a difficult vintage where the wines are, across the board, simply not up to scratch. In this sort of situation the grower with a plot of vines in a grand cru vineyard has, I suppose, two options. First, harvest the fruit, ferment and bottle the wine, stick the grand cru label on, which comes with a very expensive price tag, and send the wine out into the world. In other words, try to sell it on the basis of the appellation rather than the quality of the wine. One day that might have worked, but in the modern world of widely available critical review and consumer-to-consumer communication via social media the game would soon be up. It would be like Pontet-Canet or Pichon-Baron during the 1970s; great names, but we all knew the wines fell far short of where they could have been. Would a dedicated vigneron, one who respects the land as much as he respects his customers, want to do such a thing anyway?

Quarts de Chaume

The other option is of course to declassify; drop the grand cru fruit into a premier cru cuvée, or even a village wine (or sell it off I suppose). This protects the name of the grand cru, and also the reputation of the vigneron. The declassification of the entire 2004 vintage to village level by Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy was an extreme example of this practice, but a well known one (it was the first that popped into my head anyway). It’s a relatively common practice in Burgundy I think, and a good way not just of dealing with difficult vintages, but also the fruit from inherently ‘lesser’ vines, those that are younger, or lesser clones, for example.

Unfortunately, to declassify is to firmly grasp a very vigourous nettle, because it means volunteering for a financial hit. And so some (many?) vignerons don’t seem to be able or willing to take the plunge, and they would prefer to risk their brand and status instead. The Bordelais have done this in 2013, as described in my post What Erasmus says on Bordeaux 2013, and I think it will come back to bite the majority of them once the wines are in bottle and consumers – who don’t hold back when posting on their favourite wine forum – get to taste the wines. Some other vignerons who might need to think a litle harder about it are those with vines in France’s newest grand cru, which of course is where Quarts de Chaume comes in.

After more than a decade of wrangling the vineyards of the Quarts de Chaume were finally recognised as grand cru, effective from the 2011 vintage. I can imagine exhausted members of the Quarts de Chaume syndicat, led by Claude Papin, breathing a final sigh of relief. At last, it is over! No, wrong! Now is when the hard work really starts on the Quarts de Chaume. Now you have to prove that the title was really deserved, because if consumers enticed by the grand words on the label don’t find the sort of quality they expect, it won’t be long before the grand cru designation is seen as a joke, more of a Clos de Vougeot than a Chambertin, shall we say. I appreciate that the few barrels of wine that were salvaged from the slopes in 2013 and 2014 were born through the blood, sweat and tears of the vignerons, but being blunt that’s of no concern to the consumer. If a vigneron can’t say, hand on heart, that the wine is up to scratch, it should be declassified into generic Coteaux du Layon.

I’m not taking about dreadful wash-out vintages such as 2012, where almost nobody made wine anyway, as here nature has taken this decision away from the vignerons. I’m also not taking about some new body or regulation where wines are deemed, by some tasting panel perhaps, of being worthy – that already happens under INAO regulations anyway. No, I am asking the vignerons of the Quarts de Chaume (and of the premier cru Chaume too, of course), to do this for themselves. They need to take on the responsibility to do what Lalou Bize-Leroy did in 2004, to protect their reputations, and the reputation of this new grand cru. If they don’t, it will all have been for nothing. And besides, if Quarts de Chaume becomes a joke, what wines will the next Verrier have to dedicate his odes to? Surely not something from Burgundy instead?